How Drug Ads Gaslight Us

Cartoon by Martha Rosenberg.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads have been accused of giving dual and confusing messages and even being “bipolar.” Even as viewers see rainbows, sunsets, puppies and smiling grandparents, the audio cautions that the advertised drug may cause allergic reactions, severe infections, brain bleeds, seizures and more including death. Will the drugs make us better or kill us? Do you have the sound on or off?

And there are other ways DTC ads gaslight us. Sometimes an ad broadcasts information that completely contradicts what the ad just said, making us doubt our own perceptions and memory.

Consider the highly advertised drug Ibrance, intended to treat post-menopausal women and men with metastatic breast cancer—breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Among the string of warnings on Ibrance radio ads is the caution that the post-menopausal women and men using the drug should not “get pregnant.” What? Are we hearing that right?

Then there is a new radio ad for a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), a type of drug to reduce excessive acid in gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  Many in the medical community say the “disease” of GERD has been churned by drug makers to sell PPIs and that “heart burn” is usually linked to eating too much, eating the wrong foods and eating too fast—not “GERD.”

But of course there is no money for drug makers when people are healthy and eating right; some even suggest there is a morbid interplay between Big Food whose marketing is behind so much obesity, heart disease and diabetes and Big Pharma who makes drugs for same. PPIs are so over-marketed, they are even given to babies to stop them spitting up!

The new PPI radio ad starts with a woman saying she takes the drug every day and experiences no heartburn—she is all better! Sounds great unless you hear the warning at the end of the ad that the PPI should “should be taken for no more than 14 days. If your symptoms have not improved after 14 days, let your provider know.” Wait? The woman takes the GERD preparation every day but it should be used for no more than 14 days? Are we being gaslit?

Nor does the radio spot mention the many side effects that can occur from GERD meds mentions such as

+ Allergic reactions

+ Collagenous colitis

+ Kidney harm

+ Liver harm/infection of abdominal fluid

+ Dementia

+ Pneumonia

+ Gastrointestinal infection

+ Gastric tumors

+ Gastric inflammation/ulcers

+ Gastric polyps

+ Colon cancer

+ Intestinal bacterial overgrowth

+ Hypomagnesemia

+ Decreased absorption of nutrients

The heartbreak of EPI

Finally, there is the “disease” of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) characterized by diarrhea,  abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence. “Unbranded” advertising, marketing that does not mention a drug but rather sells a disease to build “demand”, vaulted EPI to the top of public awareness (though I have interviewed few doctors who have even encountered it).

EPI was aggressively marketed by AbbVie on radio and TV until the company rolled out CREON, a drug which just happens to treat the condition. Made from the pancreas of pigs, CREON “replaces enzymes that your pancreas isn’t making, helping you digest fats,” according to sales literature. The problem? Side effects of CREON include “pain in your stomach area (abdominal area), frequent or abnormal bowel movements, gas, vomiting,” and more. A drug for “frequent or abnormal bowel movements” that causes “frequent or abnormal bowel movements”?  Sounds like more gaslighting.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).